Guided Insights

Gone are the days when employers claim that employees should be “just happy to have a job.” If anything, today it’s pretty much the reverse for many organizations: Employers are relieved to find someone willing to accept an open position.

This labor shortage is by no means limited to the service industry, where many former workers are reluctant to return to low-wage jobs, often without benefits or protections. Workers across all industries are seeking positions that are aligned more to their personal values, give them a sense of purpose, encourage risk, promote professional growth, and give them control over their work hours and location.

Why the sudden reversal of fortunes? Blame it on COVID, for starters, which helped prove that most knowledge work can be done anywhere, and to some extent, at any time. After a jarring transition to an all-virtual workplace, most employees grew to appreciate the flexibility working from home afforded, and are reluctant to relinquish it entirely. Even before the pandemic, organizations that made teleworking an exception lost top talent to organizations that embraced remote work. Today, organizations that insist on people returning to the office full-time (or even most of the time) may be in for a rude awakening when they see people moving to employers who offer greater flexibility, even if it means a reduction in pay.

If the hybrid workplace represents the “new normal” (as if there will ever be any kind of normal again!), what do employers need to keep in mind as they develop work policies that balance the needs of the organization with the needs and preferences of employees? I reached out to my colleague, Kevyn Rustici (Human Asset Consultant, Flipping HR from Cost Center to Profit Center), for a conversation. Here’s an excerpt.

When it comes to hiring and keeping employees today, what’s really so different today compared to life before COVID? Why?

Before COVID, the U.S. unemployment rate was the lowest in years. When COVID hit, many businesses, especially those that relied on people to work in person, had to jettison large portions of their workforce almost overnight. Unemployment skyrocketed. Some employers, on the other hand, especially in the services sector, ordered their employees to report to their workplace, despite the inherent risks. Either way, a covenant had been broken, leaving many employees feeling undervalued, unappreciated, and discarded.

On the other hand, those who could do their jobs remotely appreciated the new-found flexibility, which let them structure their work around their lives, instead of vice-versa. For many, their identities were no longer defined primarily by their jobs, but instead by their “whole lives,” including their relationship to family and friends, hobbies and other pastimes, their physical and mental fitness, and more. This pandemic has presented an unprecedented opportunity to live fuller, richer and more rewarding lives, while getting work done. It’s not surprising that the majority of employees don’t want to return to the office full-time.

During the pandemic, many workers were reluctant to change jobs, given the uncertain economic environment. With the recent surge in hiring across almost all industries, employees enjoy considerably more leverage than they did pre-pandemic, and many say they’re ready to jump at the first viable opportunity.

What is the time so ripe for employees to jump ship?

The desire for flexible work arrangements tops the list across all demographics. For younger workers in particular, the lack of professional development and growth opportunities as well as uncertain career paths have been cited as reasons for changing employers. Many organizations have not done a great job in figuring out how to afford remote workers opportunities to stretch, grow, gain visibility with senior leaders, and position themselves for career advancement. Companies that offer flexible work arrangements and meaningful opportunities for growth and development are well-positioned to attract the best and the brightest.

Assuming that organizations can attract sought-after talent, what skills do today’s leaders need to keep employees motivated, mobilized, engaged and challenged in all the right ways?

Above all, they need to cultivate a team culture where everyone is constantly learning, whether it’s from each other, from team leaders, others across the organizations, external experts, courses, informal on-the-job learning, shadowing, mentoring, or taking on stretch assignments. In a world where some will work remotely and some onsite, much of this learning needs to be done asynchronously.

Considering that close to 90% of all job descriptions will need to be rewritten by 2030 and that nearly 50% of jobs as we know them will be gone in the next nine years (according to a recent KPMG study), leaders must start rethinking the skills, attributes, behaviors, and other characteristics that are needed for tomorrow’ jobs. This means looking outside of the usual industries, associations, schools, recruiters, and geographic locations to find a more diverse pool of talent.

Communication skills have never been more important, and this includes engaging team members in a discussion to agree on which communications tools will be used for what, how often, and for what purpose. The ability to craft and convey clear messages that will resonate across a multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce, both by speaking and writing, is especially vital.

The ability to build and nurture mutually-trusting relationships requires excellent listening skills, vulnerability, humility and empathy. Conversations have to go beyond the business at hand. Leaders must be sometimes willing to forgo efficiency if it means strengthening social capital.

Finally, adaptability is the name of the game. Leaders who long to revert to “normal” are unlikely to succeed in the world of remote-hybrid work. Leaders need to be able to adjust quickly (e.g. strategies, deliverables, deadlines, work locations, team members, etc.) to achieve goals amidst changing demands. Those who thrive in chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty are likely to do well.

Many recent surveys indicate that most employees want to work in the office 1-3 days a week and remotely the other days. How can senior business leaders partner with Human Resources to make well-informed policy decisions? What kind of data will help to make a compelling case for the eventual decisions?

First, managers would benefit by enlisting HR to help identify jobs (or aspects of jobs) to examine which ones might be best done at the same time from anywhere, which should be done in the same place at the same time, and which can be done anywhere at almost any time. A representative sample of employees should be surveyed for their preferences, even if not everyone is able to get 100% of their needs met. You’ll also need to answer questions like: How have managers and employees done over the last 15 months in terms of meeting or exceeding performance goals? How productive have they been working remotely? Find objective ways to measure results that are fairly consistent across all teams. (Simply asking employees and managers about their productivity may not yield the most reliable data.) How many more (or fewer) hours were required to get the work done while working remotely? What was easier, and what was harder? What tools, processes or policies made working remotely easier, and of these which lend themselves to hybrid work?

Senior business leaders would be well-served to invite HR to be part of all strategic planning conversations, as HR often has access to a wealth of data at their fingertips, both quantitative and qualitative, which can be used to help make well-thought-out decisions and avoid costly mistakes. For example, if the CEO is planning to require every employee to return to the office with rare exceptions, it could save the company a massive brain drain if they had survey data that said that 50% of top-performing employees plan to leave the company if they can’t work remotely at least 2-3 days a week.

Summary

Even though it may feel maddening to those who continue to wait for their organizations to make a decision about the future of work, it’s worth the time and effort for senior leaders to gather the data they need to make well-informed decisions, even if they must be revisited over the next few months, carefully assessing the risks and trade-offs. When employees leave en masse, the cost to organizations is incalculable. Not only are they losing talented resources with the skills and know-how to get the job done, but they’re weakening their competitive positioning, missing new business opportunities, and sapping intellectual capital, potentially tarnishing their reputation and credibility, and losing time they can never get back.

Links

  • Contact Kevyn through via email, or connect with him on LinkedIn to find out more about his services or to set up an exploratory call
  • Guided Insights’ Building a High-Performance Hybrid Team workshop is designed to help team leaders and members make a smooth transition to the “new normal,” whatever form that may take. See our information sheet and related graphic that describes the benefits, goals, process, and typical topics.
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